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11 October 2010 | PR 10/156

Volunteers spend hours ‘trapped’ to help future disaster victims


Professor Paul Thomas and a colleague look at the different levels of materials that could form a collapsed building

A device which aims to detect trapped or buried victims in disaster situations has been successfully trialled at Loughborough University using human volunteers.

The four year project recently reached a milestone when 10 brave volunteers spent six hours consecutively ‘trapped’ in a simulated environment to help researchers implement the device to measure the chemicals in their breath and sweat.

The team at Loughborough is led by Paul Thomas, Professor of Analytical Science. His team of researchers are part of the wider project being led by the National Technical University of Athens.

Professor Thomas explains: “We had two teams of 8 people working 24 hours a day using the equipment to measure the chemical profile of the trapped person. The chemical profile is very important as it can tell us where the victim is buried, if they are alive and potentially whether they are conscious or unconscious.

“The device has been designed to fit into a rucksack so it can easily be carried by rescue workers. It consists of a probe which is inserted into a hole, which with large concrete structures would have to be drilled. At the end of the probe there are a range of sensors, including UV and infra-red detectors, sensitive microphones, and detectors to read chemical signals.  Our role here at Loughborough has been to look at how we can ‘read’ such chemical signals in the complicated environment of a collapsed building, and the only way to do this effectively is to test it on people in a simulated trapped environment.

“We have been fortunate that 10 volunteers have put themselves in this position and this has allowed us to take this project to the experiment stage. The experiments have been run under strict safety controls and there has been a lot of planning to ensure the welfare of the volunteers was at the forefront of our experiment.”

The project aims to enable people to be found quickly from under collapsed buildings or from natural elements like mud or snow, so it could literally be a lifeline for victims of future earthquakes, landslides or terrorist attacks. In this experiment the materials in a collapsed building were recreated for the probe to be inserted into and readings were taken and analysed at different levels. It has taken the team two years to get to this point of testing.

Professor Thomas adds: “The next step in terms of testing the equipment will be hopefully to get volunteers to be ‘trapped’ for longer, for example 24 hours and to add in more confounding factors that would also give off chemicals in this kind of situation to ensure the probe is picking up the human signals, for example when a building collapses so does its sewage system so there will be a lot of chemical signals being detected by the probe. More work needs to be done before we can get to this stage and a lot needs to be taken into account of in relation to the volunteers and their welfare in this kind of situation before we can progress.”

The whole project team, which includes 21 partners from 11 different countries, have recently convened in Athens where the concept model was demonstrated and Professor Thomas shared the initial findings of the experiment.


For all media enquiries contact:

Debbie Hughes
Senior PR Officer
Loughborough University
T: 01509 228697
E: D.L.Hughes@lboro.ac.uk 

Notes for editors:

1. For further photographs of the experiment please contact Debbie Hughe

2. Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled sporting achievement and its underpinning academic disciplines.

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It was awarded the coveted Sunday Times University of the Year 2008-09 title, and is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in national newspaper league tables. In the 2010 National Student Survey, Loughborough was voted one of the top universities in the UK, and has topped the Times Higher Education league for the UK’s Best Student Experience every year since the poll's inception in 2006. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, the University has been awarded six Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

Loughborough is also the UK’s premier university for sport. It has perhaps the best integrated sports development environment in the world and is home to some of the country’s leading coaches, sports scientists and support staff. It also has the country’s largest concentration of world-class training facilities across a wide range of sports.

It is a member of the 1994 Group of 19 leading research-intensive universities. The Group was established in 1994 to promote excellence in university research and teaching. Each member undertakes diverse and high-quality research, while ensuring excellent levels of teaching and student experience.

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